Taking the Unity Out of Community

Matthew Hart


We have to get over, as in getting over a disease, the idea that we can “all” speak to one another in the universal voice of poetry. History still mars our words, and we will be transparent to one another only when history itself disappears.

—Charles Bernstein, A Poetics

1. Which Language?

The 21st century critic of language writing goes in fear of generalizations. For at least a decade now, the writings of the New York/Bay Area poets associated with such long-ago journals as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and This have seemed increasingly resistant to the vagaries of group definition. Time takes its toll on group formations; if the 1980s was the time of language writing’s debut on the academic scene, with its initial reception dependent on strategic fictions of group identity, then the past few years have seen the moderation of this tendency, with more complex and individualized critical narratives slowly supplanting initial summaries.

This is as it should be, for nothing characterized the initial language “group” like its anxiety about the nature of poetic identity, and this concern only increases as language writers move into other public and professional community spaces. This essay is an attempt to map the aesthetic/community politics of Charles Bernstein—the founder, with Bruce Andrews, of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, described on the back of a recent book as an “(in)famous language poet and critic,” Professor of Poetry at SUNY Buffalo, and an instrumental figure in Buffalo poetics communities local and international, institutional and electronic.[1] My essay is occasioned by Mantis’s inaugural issue on “Poetry and Community” but also by the degree to which Bernstein’s recent work has begun to center around questions of group identity and poetic communities. In interview, Bernstein notes that after language writing’s initial critique of the linguistic subject, “perhaps now it would . . . be useful to emphasize the problems associated with poets read primarily as a representation of a group or subculture” (Bernstein, My Way 65).[2] This problem of group identity, and its ramifications for the community politics of American poetry, is the subject of many of the pieces collected in My Way and represents the most significant single strain in Bernstein’s writing since the publication of A Poetics in 1992. Moreover, it has also occurred in the wake of Bernstein’s more public intellectual role—as an unabashed “poet-critic” and as David Gray Professor of Poetry at SUNY Buffalo. The interaction between the political pragmatics of the public sphere, an imagined “community of response” based on relations not things, and Bernstein’s own struggles in community building, form the crucial nexus for understanding his poetics of community.

The question of language writing’s group identity is now more difficult to answer than ever; but it was also the subtext of many of the early academic essays on the movement. This subtext is at play in Jerome McGann’s influential early account, “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes.”[3] McGann is distrustful of group definitions; he refers merely to “that loose collective enterprise, sprung up in the aftermath of the sixties, known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing” (McGann 624); he suggests that language writing’s self-location within a politics of representation renders any group definition a priori suspicious. This plural writing

engages adversely with all that means to appear authoritative, fixed and determined. These antithetical projects function within the world of language because language is taken as the representative social form per se—the social form through which society sees and presents itself. (McGann 643)

This is not to discount much wide and public discussion of the nature of poetry’s audience or speaking-community. Jed Rasula objected to McGann’s focus on a generalizable politics of representation by insisting on the more vital work to be done in the constitution of reading publics: “A politics in and a politics of American poetry can never arrive at a full collaboration between writer and reader without the deliberate location and cultivation of an audience.”[4]

Yet this is language writing, after all, and the question of group identities keeps returning to its philosophical ground zero. Bob Perelman writes about a manifesto in which he collaborated, describing the problem of representing a project where “even though the group structure was a crucial given, a set group identity was not” (Perelman 35).[5] The problem centers on the paradox that the identification of language as a common epistemological horizon is incommensurable with the promotion of group identities for particular language practitioners. This primary collective of reader/writers (an important social and theoretical context for the development of language writing that serves a metaphor for a total language praxis) is effective only to the extent that it resists reification: “externally, group identity is disavowed: given the deep disinterest in poetics of identity, the creation of literary labels would hardly be desirable” (36).

The point is that, if they are to avoid the balkanization and tabloidization usually reserved for such communities, poetic movements can only be imagined in and through the struggle against collective identity qua identity. This is the position staked out in Bernstein’s notion of poetry audiences as “communities of response”:

[The] conscious social articulation of a way out of “me-too” Romantic individualism—so often misinterpreted as collectivization and group formation—amounts not to the creation of a school of thought but to a poetic of response: a conversation not a thesis. . . . Dissent and subversion remain operations that cannot be collectivized without losing their most powerful psychic effect; but only response—in the form of exchange—allows such acts to enter into a social space where they can begin to live a life of their own. (Bernstein, A Poetics 380; ellipsis mine, italics in original)

For Bernstein, poetry is “a place to explore the constitution of meaning, of self, of groups, of nations,—of value” (Bernstein, My Way 4). Language—and poetry as the language game to end all language games—is the social space where dissent and subversion flourish and find their public selves.

“Social space” is the term used in Pierre Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power in order to describe society as a relational space of “significant differences.” Bourdieu seeks to counter the vision of society as a world of objectively existing facts and categories. By representing society as a “field of forces” in which capital acts upon agents through repression and incorporation, Bourdieu claims to break with the “realism of the intelligible” (Bourdieu 229, 232). Most important, in this context, are symbolic struggles, “where what is at stake is the very repre-sentation of the social field” and its various hierarchies (229). The re-presentation of society as a space of relations enjambs the symbolic and linguistic fields: “one cannot establish a science of classifications without establishing a science of the struggle over classifications. . . . Those who occupy dominated positions in the social space are also dominated in the field of symbolic production” (241, 244). Thus the liberating role of art within social space, which perforce takes the form of a struggle over the grounds of representation itself: “The struggles among writers over the legitimate art of writing contribute, through their very existence, to producing both the legitimate language, defined by its distance from the ‘common’ language, and belief in its legitimacy” (58). Political art must remain skeptical in the face of authoritative meanings and symbolic productions, aware of its own role in the production of symbolic authority, where avant-gardism risks sliding into the reproduction of culturally sanctioned expression.

Bernstein has long talked about his fascination with “the relentless theme of how language socializes us” (Content’s Dream 391). In his poetry this theme often takes the form of the simultaneous, and paradoxical, literalization and metaphorization of literary forms, rendering the “aesthetic” social and the “social” aesthetic. In this way he suggests how the space of poetry and the social space of political choice might be part of the same “community of response,” imagined as the “public place” of “the page, open as it is to reading and rereading (by oneself and others)” (77). But what is to be avoided, to cite a well-anthologized poem, “Of Time and the Line,” is the nominalism of mistaking one “line” for another—of assuming that the poetic line is the same as the soup line; that literary politics is a simple extension of public politics:

[It] is the anxiety of indetermination that is of interest. The political dimension is not the opinion of any isolated sentence, but the experience of hearing the possibilities of truth and lies and in-between, and, as readers, choosing. Because to read is to choose . . . . (Bernstein, Content’s Dream 456; italics in original)

This labor is the work demanded by a community of relations, rather than things: it depends upon a politics of reading and exchange that values critical relations over existing values, process and epistemology over product and ontology.

2. Whose Lingo?

For these reasons, as every Bernstein reader soon learns, the heterodox and unacknowledged potential of poetry is to be celebrated over and against the forms and functions of “official verse culture.” To return to the question of collective identity, the primary focus on epistemology means that the struggle over identity must be prevented from becoming a struggle between identities: “If individual identity is a false front, group identity is a false fort” (Bernstein, My Way 9). Bernstein asserts the provisional nature of identities, communities and poetries: “I’m for a poetry that neither sheds its identities nor uses them as shields against the poem-in-the-making nor, for that matter, selves-in-the-making nor society-in-the-making” (Bernstein, My Way 9). Like Stein in Tender Buttons, he resists the “realism of the intelligible” and refuses to see either poetry or society as a collection of established facts. As he puts it in “Artifice of Absorption”:

It is just my insistence
that poetry be understood as epistemological
inquiry; to cede meaning would be to undercut
the power of poetry to reconnect us
with modes of meaning given in language
but precluded by the hegemony of restricted
epistemological economies . . . . (Bernstein,
A Poetics 17-18)

This is a “realism of the unintelligible,” a philosophical commitment to a poetics of apperception that finds its opposite in any fixed form of discourse or being. It is a poetry that situates itself “at the / divide between instant and / instantiation” (Bernstein, My Way 313) and finds its most problematic socio-cultural opposite in multicultural identity politics.

For Bernstein, the building of identity-based communities is profoundly antipoetic. His “poetry” is a provisional social space in which identities are in abeyance because the world is yet unmade: “I prefer to imagine poems as spatializations and interiorizations: blueprints of a world I live near to but have yet to fully occupy” (Bernstein, “Community” 185). He employs the term “aesthetic” “not to suggest an ideal of beauty but to invoke a contested arena of judgement” (191). And the aesthetic becomes—to reverse Bernstein’s language—an arena of contested judgements insofar as it signals its rejection of any single generic or community frame. In My Way, Bernstein criticizes the relativism of Stanley Fish, which “precludes the aestheticization of its own values, insofar as such aestheticization might ground judgements outside the context of a profession, holding one’s judgements to a continual testing of and in the world” (38). For Bernstein, “the world” is a social space constituted by language and “the aesthetic” is where it goes to pick a fight, declare the impossible, or count its uncountable faces.

Standing outside the “false fort” of collective identities, Bernstein finds it impossible to imagine a poetic community predicated upon the affirmation of common racial, ethnic, sexual or social identities. National poetries (one thinks of Amilcar Cabral on “National Liberation and Culture” or Kamau Brathwaite’s “nation language” poetics as much as imperial, European, national literatures) are to be suspended in favor of poetries “not carved up by national borders or language borders but transected by innumerable overlaying, contradictory or polydictory, traditions and proclivities and histories and regions and peoples” (Bernstein, My Way 113). “Community” is insistently opposed to a vision of exchange as “conversation without necessitating conversion”:

Conversation, not communion, communities,
makes this world glow—lit
but not consumed. (Bernstein, Rough Trades 18)

Instead of “communities,” Bernstein advocates “provisional institutions” (My Way 145), “publics under construction,” (304) or “uncommunities” (154); he represents “community” as an essentially exclusionary concept. Against popular multiculturalism, he poses the fact that “like in electoral politics, not every group is recognized as equally significant in the often schematic, not to say gerrymandered, patchwork of multi-cultural curricula” (305). Even liberal-democratic pluralism cannot legislate against a persistent inside/outside contradiction:

I would say “poetry communities” but this begs questions even as it suggests relief. Many poets I know experience poetry communities, say scenes, as places of their initial exclusion from publication, readings, recognition. Being inside, a part of, is often less striking than being left out, apart . . . . To have a community is to make an imaginary inscription against what is outside the community. & outside is where some poetry will want to be. (Bernstein, “Community” 177)

Bernstein’s “community” is a social space writ-through with the traces of power, prestige and exclusion. In place of the single comes a crowd of selves and publics—plural in nature before number: “I contain no multitudes; I can’t even contain myself” (My Way 97). “Poetry,” he asserts, “is (or can be) an aversion of community in pursuit of new constellations of relationship” (“Community” 177). In a description of his own poetic method, he once again juxtaposes community with conversation:

I make meaning out of the failure to arrive, for so often it is a breaking down of the chain of sense that lets me find my way. A way away from the scanning over and over what went wrong—the failure of community that may, in flits and faults, give way to conversation. (181)

The compositional context, here, is crucial. The notion of a semantic break-down leading to conversation is the premise of Bernstein’s weird music of verse and social aversion, where the sound of clashing idioms often serves as the only route towards establishing a pattern through the maze of peoples and poetries. “[T]he music of poetry is the sound of sense coming to be in the world”(177), he writes, signifying upon the pun on “sense” that is found in the opening lines of “The Klupzy Girl’’: “Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: / It brings you to your senses” (Bernstein, Islets/Irritations 47).

But what this description leaves out is the real-world history of any such “uncommunity”—“a space of relations which is every bit as real as a geographical space, in which movements have to be paid for by labour, by effort, and especially by time” (Bourdieu 232). Behind the philosophy of “uncommunity” lies an unresolved tension between the status of identity as an ontological category mistake and the recognition of the historical importance of “good conscience” identity formations for left-political community building (Bernstein, My Way 273).[6]

In “Poetics of the Americas,” navigating this tension within the literary communities of the Americas, Bernstein falls back on a notion of collectivity as/in heterodoxy. Always conscious of the political need for standards of common interest, Bernstein supplies a vision of an Americas united in its dissent from unitary cultures or autarchic communities:

The impossible poetics of the Americas does not seek a literature that unifies us as one national or even continental culture . . . . Rather, [it] insists that our commonness is in our partiality and disregard for the norm, the standard, the overarching, the universal. Such poetry will always be despised by those who wish to use literature to foster identification rather than to explore it. (115)

This is an “impossible” politics; and is therefore “necessary” (113). Like all Utopias, this American poetics is here and nowhere: a sign of how things could be and a reminder of the radical possibilities of action in the present moment. In this sense it is much like the “community of response” that Bernstein offers as an alternative to the “collective imperative” (Bernstein, A Poetics, 180). In both cases one is asked to imagine a community of pure exchange: a social space wherein difference will never be mistaken as the negation of collectivity.

But to put it this way risks leaving out the writing contexts in which many of these definitions of “uncommunity” were first developed, especially a paper like “Community and the Individual Talent,” (part of a special diacritics issue, Poetry, Community, Movement) in which Bernstein cites Erving Goffman on the need to see “association” as always mediated by institutional frames (178). Parts of this paper were first posted to the SUNY Buffalo Poetics listserv as an intervention in an ongoing discussion on the topic of poetic communities.[7] This article is significant, then, not just for what it offers in terms of Bernstein’s critical response to the question of poetic communities, but also because it can be seen as part of an attempt to create a textual polis by a group of people amongst whom the significance of terms such as “community” are at stake. The essay calls for a community politics based upon the value of conversation; it is in turn partly identifiable as one strand of that possible conversation.

As Bernstein notes, the main contention which precedes his interjection was whether the listserv could itself be considered as an example of a poetic community, or whether it was disqualified by dint of its virtuality. Bernstein is skeptical about this opposition from the start. “Virtuality,” like “community” or “poetry,” is not something essential but is a provisional quality engaged in ceaseless negotiation with its conditions of possibility. Only insofar as this is understood are conditions such as “reality” and “virtuality” useful in recognizing the grounds upon which any politically responsible community might be built. The desire is that “virtual” spaces maintain and exploit this tension: “it is our virtuality that allows for hope. . . . my real eyes do me no good if I aspire to something else than what I see, and what I want to monitor is neither real nor unreal” (Bernstein, “Community” 179). Electronic “uncommunities” remain potentially liberatory concepts because they foreground the problems of reality and virtuality which other, more positively defined or located, groupings erase or ignore.

It is in this context that Bernstein values the opportunities afforded by electronic media. Like poetry considered as a blueprint for an unrealized social space, the Buffalo Poetics list has “civic value” because it does not reinforce existing communities but still takes up “the constitution of social space” (179). Thus, in his entry into the “poetry and community” thread, Bernstein makes much of his position as “listowner” (the manager of the list: capable of setting and implementing rules and decorum, and able to restrict access) and posts a number of mock-serious rules under the heading “Hermit Crabs Don’t Cry.”

These rules are deliberately inapplicable and comically ridiculous: “No messages shall be posted between / :43 and :52 minutes after the hour . . . . You have to sound 30 or show ID” (188). Nevertheless, they reveal their ironic intent to demonstrate the inevitability of lines of regulation and power even in a relatively free and sympathetic space:

If there is significant sentiment on the
list in favor of these rules, they will
not be adopted; if, in contrast, there
is strong opposition to these rules,
they will become effective immediately.

In addition, to bring even more reality
into the system, between three and five
Listserv Rules will remain concealed
from all subscribers AND about one percent
of all messages will be randomly deleted
before they are delivered. (189)

However, although one can easily grasp the logic behind this per-spective, it is more difficult to relate it to the vision of “uncommunity” which Bernstein is concerned with advocating. A community which lays bare the basis upon which power is distributed is no more free of the effects of the use and abuse of that power than is the most autocratic political organization, unless its symbols and machinery of authority are subject to the possibility of change. One might begin to protest Bernstein’s comprehensive assault on communities and poetries of identity by articulating this point: that it is the possibility of change (internal, centripetal, individual, general), and not just exchange that is the relevant arbiter of any community’s ability to resist the “collective imperative.”

A community of pure exchange is, in the end, an insufficient answer to the problem of collective identity so brilliantly foregrounded by Bernstein’s practice: one needs to attend to sociologies of prestige and authority that the hypostatization of a poetic “uncommunity” so far avoids. Trawling through the archives of the Buffalo Poetics list, one is struck by the fact that “Community and the Individual Talent” is the thread’s most complete posting, both in terms of the conclusiveness of its arguments and the variability of its idiolect. It confidently mixes low irony with high camp, philosophical irreverence with political seriousness; it argues that only this conglomeration of voices gives access to the knowledge made by sense’s failure. This is a quality sufficient to gain increased prestige and attention within the listserv environment, which is a social space only as coherent as its last contribution. Despite the arguments in A Poetics against authoritative language (or perhaps because of them) Bernstein’s intervention employs persuasive language, persuasively marshaled and granted supplementary capital by his very reminder of his listowner status.[8] Moreover, Bernstein is not only listowner but a celebrated language poet and theorist, and a professor at the institution where, in the spring of 1994 (the date of the relevant discussion), the majority of the list members either taught or studied—positions of authority which the self-conscious marginality of his prose can never quite revoke. The rules are comic tools for ideological exposure: the provisional assertion of reality’s “brute circumstance” that makes possible the idea of an “uncommunity.” It is therefore doubly ironic that this rhetorical double bluff is exposed as a result of its successful exploitation of markers of hidden authority.

It is easier to articulate a philosophical objection to communities and poetries of identity than it is to square this objection with a left-wing cultural politics that seeks to build aesthetic communities and coalitions outside of consumer capitalism and white, heterosexist culture. In “Poetics of the Americas,” Bernstein writes that “for the present, the idea of American literature understood as a positive, expressive “totalization” needs to continue to be dismantled” (Bernstein, My Way 113-14). Such has been the ongoing project of many different literate communities, many of which Bernstein elsewhere describes as “asserting a powerfully positive identity either in individual writings or through integrally related social formations (readings, publishing, critical writing)” (Bernstein, My Way 273). An American poetry defined by its common resistance to the standard must never lose sight of the fundamentally unequal state of relations between the various parts of the American “community of response.” One might begin by emphasizing the historical necessity of claims to identity as factors in political change—as much as they might be resistant to a community of exchange. For instance, Harryette Mullen’s poetry of inter-community audience and conversation could become crucial in this regard, especially in her consideration of the difficult, necessary, legacy of the Black Arts and black nationalist movements for thinking-through the relationship between linguistic theory and a politics of Afro-American identity. Before envisioning a common history of resistance to the “standard” we had better work out the socio-cultural relations between the various poetic communities of America or elsewhere, however much they fail to meet normative national or ethnic borders. Such a process had better begin by recognizing claims to identity before going on to problematize them, for it is often a failure of recognition that underpins a marginal culture’s claim to autarchic self-definition. This is an epistemological, as well as political, question: one that is entirely suitable to Bernstein’s uncommunitarian approach to the relationship between language, identity and community formation.


[1] The “(in)famous” quotation comes from the back cover of Bernstein’s My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). I don’t mean to suggest here that Bernstein is somehow representative of a unified “language writing” platform, but the fact of his difference from his colleagues—put down to his increasingly “public” role as critic and spokesperson—was already noted by Tom Beckett in a 1987 interview collected in Bernstein, A Poetics, 179-92.

[2] For the critique of the poetic subject, see: Lyn Hejinian and Barret Watten, eds. Poetics Journal 9: The Person (1991); Bob Perelman, “The First Person,” Hills 6/7 (Spring 1980); Robert Grenier, “I HATE SPEECH!” in Ron Silliman, ed. In The American Tree (Orono: University of Maine/National Poetry Foundation, 1986): xv, 496. A critical response to this common aspect of language-writing can be found in Paul Mann, “A Poetics of Its Own Occasion,” Contemporary Literature, 35/1 (1994): 171-181.

[3] Though “early” by academic standards, McGann’s 1987 essay is far from the first critical article on language writing. He is careful to note two precedents, chapter 10 of Marjorie Perloff, The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and Lee Bartlett, “What is ‘Language’ Poetry?” Critical Inquiry 12 (Summer 1986): 741-52 (in addition to predating McGann, Bartlett’s essay includes a useful history of the “language” label, the publishing history of the group formation, and the collective critique of the “workshop” poem: 741-43). This is to list only peer-reviewed academic writing. The most significant critical resource for understanding the initial aims and reception(s) of language writing lies in the hundreds of essays and reviews published in Andrews and Bernstein’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in countless little magazines, and in non-academic journals such as Hejinian and Watten’s Poetics Journal.

[4] Jed Rasula in Politics and Poetic Value, ed. Robert von Hallberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 322; quoted in Perelman: 19.

[5] The text in question is Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, & Barrett Watten, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto,” Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988): 261-75. Perelman notes that the authors did not wish to present their essay as a programmatic statement, and that the subtitle, “a manifesto,” was added by the journal’s editors (Perelman 36).

[6] Bernstein does not positively admit the existence of “good conscience” claims to identity. However, in an essay titled “Poetry and [Male?] Sex” he rejects the possibility that white, heterosexual men could, “occupy [the] ground [of identity politics] . . . in good conscience . . . [because] on the contrary, the group solidarity of straight, white men needs to be dissolved . . . into a human future that is not now possible to envision” (My Way 273-4). This is the closest Bernstein comes to an endorsement of the ethical and historical imperatives behind, e.g., black nationalist thought, though it is clear to any reader that he wholeheartedly condemns the racism and economic terrorism that gives rise to the literary politics of, say, Amiri Baraka.

[7] Bernstein acknowledges this, and provides the bibliographical material with which one can discover the absent parts of the 1994 conversation (which, for reasons of space and copyright, I do not quote here). The relevant published parts of “Community and the Individual Talent” are the title section and “Hermit Crabs Don’t Cry,” 177-179; 185-190. The Buffalo Poetics list (of which I am a member) is an ongoing forum, with nearly a thousand subscribers, and is both a major public notice board and arena of contention in the anglophone “experimental” poetry world(s). General information about the Poetics list, including a link to the archive, is at http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/poetics/welcome.html.

[8] “[A]uthoritative language, while hardly equatable with physical violence, is, nonetheless, a form of manipulation and coercion” (Bernstein, A Poetics 167).

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